A surprise frost landed last night, though the forecast called for a low only around 40. “It’s a radiation frost,” my dad tells me when I drop Waylon off for the day. “It can happen on clear nights when it’s very still, even if it’s above freezing.”
It’s the second frost of the season, and I’ve been harvesting tender herbs to dry before the cold burns and discolors the leaves. A few days ago I clipped the peppermint that grows along the stone foundation of the yurt, trimming the tips that turned purple in the first frost. It’s one of my favorite herbs to harvest; just the act of brushing the leaves with my hands and clipping the stems with shears sends a minty fragrance into the air, relaxing me and deepening my breath as I move slowly and contentedly through the harvest.
I’ve experimented with several ways of drying herbs over the years: laying them on hanging screens, bundling them up and hanging them upside-down from rafters, in an electric-dehydrator, and in the propane oven with the pilot light on. My goal is always to keep the color as vibrant as it is when the herbs are fresh, which means they need to dry relatively quickly and out of direct sunlight.
When working in small batches, my favorite way to dry is to put the herbs in the propane oven with the pilot light on. This is the fastest and also perhaps the riskiest method, as we’ve torched a few rounds when we’ve forgotten and pre-heated the oven without taking the herbs out. The high heat diminishes the medicinal quality of the herbs, though they do become quite aromatic when this happens. To safeguard against this, I’ve come to taping a big sign over the temperature dial that reads Stop! There are herbs in the oven!
I put the peppermint in a woven wooden basket and place it whole in the oven. When I take it out after a day, it’s dry and crinkly and still bright green. Over a bowl, I strip and garble the leaves, then fill a glass jar with the mint, labeling it Peppermint, Mentha piperita, 2014. Leafy herbs loose their strength after a year, so noting the date is a helpful way to remind me when to compost old leaves and refill with new ones.
Rain is in the forecast for the next few days, and though the lows aren’t expected to be below 40 again later this week, we must always be suspect of October in Vermont—radiation frost and all. So this is the final push for drying herbs. Spearmint and Echinacea are next on the list, and sage and thyme after that. The sun is shining, and so out to work I go.
What herbs are you drying and stocking on your shelves?